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L.A. CAN Offers Singular Approach to Volunteerism

May 26, 1986|CONNIE ZWEIG

John Scherrer's condo on Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades looks the same as all the others on the outside. But inside No. 221, the kitchen is a makeshift office and the sink is piled high with newspapers, flyers and newsletters. In the sparsely furnished living room, phones ring frequently with callers volunteering for community service work or agencies seeking volunteer assistance.

This is the home of L.A. CAN (accent on can ), a fast-growing, citywide volunteer clearinghouse, and its offshoot, Singles for Charity.

Scherrer, 53, is founder of the organization, whose name stands for Community Action Network (formerly known as Constructive Action Network). Starting with modest fund-raising parties in July, 1983, and growing into a community service project with 40 volunteers in May, 1984, Scherrer's nonprofit group now claims 950 volunteers, many of them single people like him.

"Most traditional singles functions emphasize finding a mate," Scherrer said, "so people tend to worry about how they look and things like that. As a result, many of them tend to be self-conscious.

"We attend our events without that focus. We go to do something positive for others, as well as to have a good time. Then meeting each other happens as a natural side effect."

On one recent weekend, small groups of L.A. CAN participants variously served as support staff for a celebrity bowling fund-raiser in Van Nuys, painted a YWCA building in the Harbor area, and barbecued hamburgers in a Mar Vista park for the first picnic of the Palmer Drug Abuse Center.

At the bowling tournament, a charity event for the Timothy Foundation for Dyslexic Children, Wayne Dee helped other volunteers set up and serve a buffet lunch. Dee, a special equipment installer for the phone company in Malibu, said he originally wanted to participate to meet other single people. "But the sense of accomplishment, of doing something for a good cause, was so great that I now see socializing as a bonus," he added.

At the Mar Vista picnic, management consultant Rosalind Robinson echoed the concern of several participants who said they previously thought they could not do volunteer work and also lead busy lives. "I always thought that when life calmed down I'd do community service," Robinson said. "But L.A. CAN provides a way to do it and still be in the fast track. There are no committees, no board meetings. I just pick and choose the events I like whenever I feel like it."

The official statement of purpose of L.A. CAN explains volunteers' eagerness to participate. "We are bringing people together to take constructive action to improve community living."

'Healing Response'

But Scherrer goes even further. "We are promoting cooperation in the community as a healing response to the problems of violence and war. I believe the antidote is spreading positive energy on a local level."

Why is this former schoolteacher manning the phones all week and crossing town all weekend to organize volunteers? "It started with the kind of education I got," he said in an interview. "I majored in history at Amherst and got a master's degree in history at Columbia. Those programs emphasized what works in society--and what doesn't.

"Also, driving to Columbia through Harlem in those days was grim. I vowed to do something at some point in my life."

In 1960, Scherrer moved to Los Angeles and taught school in Malibu. In 1974 he became an English teacher at Lincoln Junior High and in 1978 he moved to the Palisades. He said that when he received teacher retirement benefits and inherited some stocks that could cover his personal expenses, he decided to act on that old vow. He organized Construction Action Network in 1983.

"Action is therapy," Scherrer still says today. "When you do something, you feel better. And making a contribution is not that difficult."

The network began simply enough. "I invited nearly 100 personal friends to a fund-raising party for the Free Arts Clinic for Abused Children. They paid $10 each to attend and, with a raffle, we wrote a check for the clinic for $1,300. It was so easy."

More Parties Followed

Scherrer was infected with the bug. With three friends, he threw another party, this one for Stepping Stone, a Santa Monica shelter for teens. After that, he gave himself a birthday party--with a twist. The gift was to be a donation to the local tree-planting group, the TreePeople.

Then he designed a project for Sojourn, a home for battered women. "Instead of just donating $100 to the distressed women," he said, "we used the money to help them buy clothing from the Clare Foundation Thrift Shop (for alcoholics), so both groups benefited."

When Scherrer noticed that the majority of people attending the events were single, he organized Singles for Charity, a branch of the umbrella organization, that has met with enthusiasm.

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